2. Recalling more than 10 years later the way his friendship with Jean Paulhan was tested when, in May 1958, de Gaulle returned to power, Blanchot makes the following remark:
Communism is this as well: the incommensurable communication where everything that is public - and then everything is public - ties us to the other (others) through what is closest to us.
Communism demands that the private becomes the public. The distant - de Gaulle's unconstitutional return to power - must reach us in the intimacy of our relationship; it must find us there and interrogate us, as, perhaps, Hiroshima did the lovers of Duras’s screenplay. How to become worthy of friendship as communism, communism as friendship? Blanchot’s friendship with Paulhan was tested by their disagreement about the significance of de Gaulle’s return to power on May 13th 1958. But it was also in name of friendship that he allied himself with Dionys Mascolo, Marguerite Duras, Jean Schuster and others over the same issue, contributing articles to the anti-Gaullist Le 14 Juillet.
Invoking the solidarity granted by the refusal to allow the reconciliation of what happened on May 13th by the authority of de Gaulle’s name, Blanchot writes “Men who refuse and who are tied by the force of refusal know that they are not yet together. The time of joint affirmation is precisely that of which they have been deprived”. Then what he calls in the next sentence “the friendship of this certain, unshakable, rigorous No” is a solidarity that belongs to a time out of joint.
A break has occurred. When we refuse, we refuse with a movement that is without contempt, without exaltation, and anonymous, as far as possible, for the power to refuse cannot come from us, nor in our name alone, but from a very poor beginning that belongs first to those who cannot speak.
Friendship, here, is a solidarity with those who are deprived the power of speaking. The aim is not to speak in the place of others - but to preserve, anonymously, that speechlessness in its simplicity, reaffirming it, and allowing it to resound. A kind of silence, then, that suspends the movement of good sense to reconcile everything in the continuity of discourse. Friendship, communism are set back into an incapacity, in much the same way as the literary work, as Blanchot argues in his literary criticism in a similar period, lets speak the impossibility of speech.
But what, then, is the relationship between literature and politics?
3. Speaking of the Declaration on the Right to Insubordination in the Algerian War, whose signatories gave their support to those who refused to bear arms against the Algerians, or who offered them assistance, Blanchot says he signed it “not as a political writer, nor even as a citizen involved in the political struggle, but as an apolitical writer who felt moved to express an opinion about problems that concern him essentially”.
A surprising declaration - because in the same period it is out of the experience of literature that Blanchot will attempt to think the “change of epoch” he feels is underway - the technological uprooting of old mythologies and the media-driven appearance of new ones, the eclipse of other forms of violence by the possibility of nuclear catastrophe, and which calls for a dialogue with Marxism. This the project of the Revue Internationale, which occupied him from 1960 to 1965, emerging directly out of his engagement with Mascolo and others on Le 14 Juillet and his opposition to the Algerian War.
The Revue Internationale was the Italian novelist’s Elio Vittorini’s idea, Blanchot remembers in 1996; he recalls that Italo Calvino, Hans-Magnus Enzensberger, Günter Grass, Ingeborg Bachmann and Uwe Johnson being associated with the project; Louis-René des Forêts was its secretary, and Maurice Nadeau and Roland Barthes were also involved.
The Revue only appeared once, in April 1964, as a supplement to the Italian review Il Menabò, containing translations of Blanchot’s texts “The Name Berlin” and “The Conquest of Space”, as well as “Archipelagic Speech” and the final page of “Everyday Speech” as it was published later in The Infinite Conversation. In 1990, Michel Surya published the texts associated with the Revue, Blanchot’s “Proposal for the Revue Internationale”, along with letters between the participants, in his magazine Lignes.
What kind of dialogue is Marxism to seek with literature in the Revue? One that will also have to come to terms with the fact that, in Blanchot’s words in the “Proposal”, “Literature represents a distinctive kind of power, a kind of power not predicated upon possibility (and the dialectic has to do only with that which is possible)”: “a power without power” associated with a “literary responsibility” that is irreducibly different from “political responsibility”. Both kinds of responsibility “engage[...] us absolutely”, Blanchot writes to his fellow participants, “as in a sense does the disparity between them”. One of the tasks of the review is precisely to explore the possibility of a solution to the clash of literature and politics.
4. But how is this possible, when Blanchot’s notion of literature seems to be founded on a refusal of any notion of political commitment?
Recall the general account Blanchot offers of language and literature. For the most part, I am able to speak in my own name, using language to the extent that it seems transparent, barely interposing itself between what I say and what I might want to say. Everything seems expressible; language is obedient, docile; speech and writing are part of the economy of what possible for human beings. I refer to the world; I express my feelings: language answers to a faith in human ability, and in the ability to be able, to the power and possibility that is proper to each of us.
But this is not always the case. Remembering his clashes with the examining magistrate who sought to prosecute him in the wake of the publication of the Declaration, Blanchot recalls, “After I had finished giving my statement, the examining magistrate wanted to dictate it to the clerk of the court: 'No, no', I said, 'you will not substitute your words for my own'”. If Blanchot repeats the exact same words he had uttered earlier, it is not because of any difference in the content of what he would say, but because of the place he would reclaim for his utterances within a network of power. To speak in his own name is not to arrogate speech to himself as to an individual as powerful as the magistrate within a given institutional context, but to disclose the operation of this context as it makes of speech something more than mere information. Blanchot expresses a solidarity with those who are unable to reclaim their speech as it is made to speak without them - attesting to speech as non-power, to the “cry of the Other” unable to speak in an institutional context. A speech that can also be reaffirmed as a kind of refusal, and that is the basis of what Blanchot calls communism and friendship.
Literature, too, belongs to this refusal. True, the novel seems continuous with the world in which we live, but there is a practice of writing in which language brackets its capacity to refer, interposing itself in its thickness and opacity in place of that transparency it assumes in ordinary communication. Poetry emphasises the rhythm or the sonority of language, its flesh. Fiction - even the vastest novel - can wear away the world it seems to carefully construct, dramatising the way in which language withdraws from its referential function. To read Kafka’s The Castle, for example, is to lose oneself into a labyrinth without issue, as language wanders like K., unable to take refuge in the intentions of its author, in his ability to conjure a world from ink and paper.
For Blanchot, a writer is never quite a writer, or never writer enough, since language does not grant itself to the measure of power. But nor does it grant itself to the power of a reader, insofar as it carries what it says beyond the intentions of any particular reading. This is not because it gives itself to be read in any number of ways, but that it lets itself be experienced as the double or the image of language.
For Blanchot, both author and the reader both sense their distance from what does not cease murmuring in the work; for the former, this is why it is necessary to start writing again, to enclose the unfinishable work in a book; for the latter, it draws the reader to read anew. Both, then, have a relation that passes by way of the work as it sets itself back from writing and reading. Both find themselves elected or commanded by what has no power. This, indeed, is what literary responsibility might mean: the attempt to maintain a response to what lays claim to both author and reader, and to answer that response anew.
The passion of this encounter, which means the writer is never quite a writer, can be hidden by the imposingness of the narrative. Even the vastest novel bears, at its heart, a simple récit, if this word is allowed to name not only a literary genre, but the event upon which the creation of literature depends. And likewise, any critical study is engaged by the same event, repeating it in turn, even if it is overwhelmed by the imposingness of criticism, of literary judgement.
This is the responsibility Blanchot lets claim him in his fiction and his criticism. His récits seem to pare themselves away until they are concerned simply with the act of narration in its possibility and its impossibility. Only a minimal realism survives; the most tenuous link with the world. What matters is the narrator’s journey to the “truth” of the narrative - the interminable, incessant return of language as language, of language as it appears in place of itself. A journey which requires that he be sacrificed as he falls from that power, that measure of possibility to which language normally grants itself, all the while keeping up his narrative. Until, at the end of each récit, he returns to the world of the present from the peculiar passion of his narrative.
Blanchot’s fiction is that path of research that drives his encounter with the texts of others, discovering a récit in literary narratives that narrates the return, from writing, from the experience of language, of the double of ordinary language. Before it can be analysed in terms of metaphor and imagery, the poem has always retreated from the world in which it seems to be able to be read, bringing its reader close to the image of language as it retreats from signification, from what it can be made to say.
It is thus that Blanchot seeks to answer literary responsibility, experiencing the work, undergoing it as though it were a kind of fate, and finally, in his fiction and his criticism, welcoming it, affirming what happened as it had done just as Joë Bousquet, Deleuze reminds us, claimed his wound pre-existed him. Blanchot lets himself be haunted and doubled by the “other” language as it seems to dispose of him in order to return to itself through his fiction and his literary criticism, and thereby suspending those relations that bind him to the world.
Who am I, as author, as reader? For Blanchot, I exist only as my double, just as language, too, wanders in itself. A double, now, that is not subordinate to its original, but that indicates the way in which the original is always doubled, that what exists can do so otherwise. I am fated by what I cannot even will, by what returns over and again. And as it returns, engaging me as language, as the non-power of language, the “I” becomes “it” - as, in Klossowski’s reading of Nietzsche, the capacity to say “I”, to speak in one’s own name appears and disappears. I am all the names in history; I am none of those names. Amor fati: the self is not yet itself, and lives as this “not yet”, in the interval where it is turned to language as it resounds ceaselessly in its mute murmuring.
5. What, then, when literary responsibility passes over into political responsibility? Communism names the attempt to answer the cry of the Other and to maintain it, affirming what reaches each of us so as to command solidarity. True, it is possible to fall short of this responsibility, to let it wither, in the same way as a literary writer attempts to escape the call that singularises him and awaits his response. But this escape is also a kind of relation to what does not cease to call. Communism is the attempt to acknowledge what first gives itself as this relation: to language as it escapes power, and calls for us to respond.
It is this response, one presumes, for which he intends the Revue to answer. But an answer, now that must be appropriate to that call. The text of the column is to be dispersed throughout each issue, being interrupted by other texts. The “disrupted continuity” of the column will be an opportunity to experiment with the “short form”, a term Blanchot says he has borrowed from contemporary music, which he characterises in another essay as “a-cultural”.
Each national editorial board, he suggests, will jointly devise a fragmentary column or essay, “The Course of Events” exploring a particular intellectual event, be it philosophical, poetic, or sociological. The production of fragments must be a collective practice, Blanchot notes, each writer transcending the limits of his or her thought, putting their name to fragments for which they feel themselves jointly responsible. “We must not be afraid to roll up our sleeves”, warns Blanchot: the work will be laborious, challenging.
6. “If the idea proves to be utopian, then we should be willing to fail as utopians”, wrote Blanchot of the collective editorial policy of the Revue. It did fail; the documents passed down to us which survive of the attempt to hold this utopia ahead of us not as an unrealisable dream, but as a programme that overturns our conceptions of literature, writing and authorial agency as well as our model of political activism on the other. But what survives?
In his proposal, Blanchot gives a long list of possible topics for discussion in the Revue, one of which, reflecting on the overcoming of the limits of place with Gagarin’s ascent into space, is sketched in detail. Technology, Blanchot claims, promises to dissolve the fascination with nations and peoples. Upon his return, Gagarin is greeted by Khrushchev on behalf of his fatherland, but he was nevertheless able to deliver a new kind of speech: a speech from outside.
Blanchot extends these gnomic reflections in an article he wrote for the Revue; in Gagarin’s rambling speech, he says,
something disturbs us and dismays us in that rambling: it does not stop, it must never stop; the slightest break in the noise would already mean the everlasting void; any gap or interruption introduces something which is much more than death, which is the nothingness outside entered into discourse.
Gagarin becomes “the man from the Outside”, whose speech says “the truth is nomadic”. Tantalising rather than dully developed, Blanchot's fragment is indicative rather than being fully developed, bringing together a surprising constellation of topics. To what does it point? To the challenge of formulating an “adequate response to the enigma of these changing times” - a response that is fragmentary. How should this be understood? The literary fragment, Blanchot writes, “points to a linguistic space in which the purpose and function of each moment is to render all other moments indeterminate”. The fragmentary writing Blanchot calls for in the Revue is linked to the same indeterminacy, reaffirming the murmuring of speech, the image of language as it is sensed by the literary author.
Reflecting on Blanchot’s musings on Gagarin, Hollier and Mehlman suggest the journal “had [...] the ambition of becoming a sort of literary station (a communication vessel) launched in literary space”. A satellite that would broadcast in a number of languages, raising questions about translation, Blanchot suggests, “as an original form of literary activity”. The linguistic difference between languages need not be abolished, but deployed - altering the language into which a translation is to be made.
Moving more rapidly, Blanchot also sketches a number of other possible themes: a reflection on the new treatment of text in contemporary music, for example, as found in Boulez’s use of Mallarmé in Pli Selon Pli, and in his lecture on the relationship between music and poetry; an exploration of the meaning of violence in a world where total destruction is possible: what is the revolutionary significance of this violence? what is its relationship with de-Stalinisation? what changes has de-Stalinisation accomplished in political language: how to understand terms like cult of personality, or peaceful coexistence? What questions, Blanchot asks, are raised by Fanon on violence, Levi-Strauss’s The Savage Mind or Pernoud’s book on the bourgeoisie?: a swarm of topics which begins with the particular into order to open into the general - to broach the question of the whole.
Why did the Revue fail? Blanchot suggests in 1996 that it was because its German contributors were overwhelmed by the Berlin War; as they departed, the whole project faded away. But what if they had instead joined Blanchot in reflecting on the fate of that divided city? In another fragment he wrote for the Revue, Blanchot suggests Uwe Johnson’s novels are uniquely able to answer “the singularity of “Berlin”, precisely through the hiatus that it was obliged to leave open, with an obscure and unflagging rigour, between reality and the literary expression of its meaning”. An indirect approach to the problem of Berlin - but one which, if the Revue had indeed gone about its work, might have maintained the literary station in its solitary orbit, continuing to hold its participants in friendship, in communism.